Friday, December 19, 2014

Diamonds in the Rough: Overlooked Gems of the Gollancz SF Series

When the inimitable Joachim Boaz first proposed the idea of suggesting a handful of titles to be included in the Gollancz SF Collector’s series / SF Masterworks (see issues #3 & #4), my initial thought was: I haven’t read wide enough in the field to make such a determination! Can you wait a few years while I catch up?! But once deciding I should go with what I’ve got, my mind flew in several different directions.  Most deserving?  Most in need of re-printing?  Most in need of saving before truly disappearing? The latest titles worthy of someday being classics?  But looking through the lists, I decided to limit myself to the 80s and 90s.  Because…

Most of the canononical novels written prior to 1980 have already separated themselves from the herd (though there are still more than a few gems the people involved in this project are sussing out every week on their blogs.)  Overall, the reader will disagree with individual selections (Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, really??), but Gollancz’s two series have done a pretty good job of highlighting titles worth preserving.  On the more recent side of the 80s and 90s, books published fifteen years ago or less are still relatively fresh in the genre’s memory.  Though they are beginning to yellow at the corners, works like Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, Sterling’s Zeitgeist, Stross’ Accelerando, McMaster Bujold’s A Civil CampaignHarry Potter, for goodness’ sake—still feel relatively new.  Though some of the titles the past fifteen years are certain to someday be etched in the genre’s plinth if they are not already (e.g. Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others), it’s still too early to tell what other books will emerge.  Therefore it’s the tweener years—the years that haven’t faded entirely into history but are beyond recent memory—that have their major works sitting before the great arbiter of genre to be judged worthy of remembrance: the 80s and 90s. 

Many of writers of the 80s and 90s still being re-printed, I decided to look closer still in the hopes of identifying neglected classics—at least what little I know of.  Ignoring authors who already have titles selected for the Collector’s and Masterworks series, I tried to get at the lesser-knowns before they slip through the cracks—hoping the other people Joachim has involved will have yet a deeper view into the field. Their nominations can be found here:

Looking to identify titles worthy of being in the SF Collector’s series, I started with US works.  For as occasionally enjoyable they may be, the killer Bs (Bear, Brin, and Benford) don’t have works of major significance.  (SF Masterworks already reprints Benford’s Timescape, which is more than enough.)  With those three out of the way, we can look to less popular but better writers. 

The first place of notice is the quiet Ks, one of which is James Patrick Kelly.  Best known for short stories, it’s natural that a collection should be nominated.  I hummed and hawed for a moment—Strange But Not A Stranger as good as Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories (1997)but ultimately went with Dinosaur as it is a great introduction to Kelly, and thus paves the way to Stranger and beyond.  Literally half of the stories nominated for awards, Think Like a Dinosaur is a good, original collection, front to back, that utilizes and transcends 80s’ cyberpunk to achieve something more humane (even if the title story is a little manipulative).  

A good friend of Kelly’s and the second of the quiet Ks is John Kessel, author of Good News from Outer Space (1989), the next piece worth nominating.  Undeserving and forever overlooked (if it was ever looked), the novel is a sophisticated text with a unique and subtle sense of humor.  A darkly satirical view of aliens and religious apocalypses in the US, it captures a magically juxtaposed tongue-in-cheek/straight-face that doesn’t stop dissecting sensationalism in America until the last page. 

Continuing with the Americans, Paul Di Filippo needs and deserves recognition.  A multi-talented writer, he is currently known only to readers heavily involved in sf, yet is worthy of a place in the genre canon.  Trouble is, I don’t know which title to add, and worse yet, I have not read enough of his work to determine ‘the best’.  Better known for short stories, I ultimately went with the collection Ribofunk (1996) (though The Steampunk Trilogy, Lost Pages, and Fractal Paisleys are also good).  Linguistically elastic, endlessly inventive, and conceptually a sum of its parts, it’s impossible to get bored.

Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang (1992) is a sublime knockout and fully deserving of being on any list of classics, now or future.  Possessing controlled style, gravitas, cultural insight (in this case Chinese), and being the mature story of a young man finding his place in a Western world inverted in terms of dominate power, it’s fully worthy of recognition.  This is a debut novel worth notice.

And lastly from the US is C.J. Cherryh—a writer’s whose name must be considered when talking about who is important in genre.  Amazingly prolific novel-wise (according to isfdb she published approximately 40 novels in the 80s and 90s—40!!!), it’s therefore difficult to pick among them.  Forty Thousand in Gehenna is good, Downbelow Station is representative, Cyteen was singular at its time of publication, but ultimately I went with the original Foreigner trilogy (Foreigner, Invader, Inheritor, 1994-1996).  One of the most interesting examinations of Otherness I’ve encountered in sf, Cherryh shows a degree of cultural sensitivity that is extremely lifelike and relevant—even if it is alien. (And do ignore the Bad Boys 7 cover.)

From the British side, there are likewise a number of good writers to choose from.  And there is no smarter place to start than Keith Roberts.  Certainly a British writer most deserving of recognition, let alone renewed recognition, it is some kind of conspiracy that only one of his works has been “canonized” (Pavane as part of SF Masterworks).  Gollancz’s SF Gateway imprint published a three-novel omnibus of Kiteworld/The Grain Kings/The Chalk Giants, but none of these three have been further recognized—and any of the three could be.  Given its relative accessibility, the sustained quality of the prose, fascinating central concept (the kites are grand), and, like Kelly’s collection, the book’s ability to open doors into the author’s work at large, I’m nominating Kiteworld (1985).  (To be honest, I wanted to nominate Grainne as it sits alone, rarely re-printed and unremembered by genre, but as I’m sticking to science fiction for this list, it had to be passed over.)   Roberts one of the top sf writers of all time, it’s truly a shame his name has almost entirely dropped off the radar.

The time has come to recognize Ian McDonald as an important voice in our field, and though I think King of Morning, Queen of Day and Necroville are his best titles from the 80s and 90s, I will nominate Desolation Road (1988) for the same reason as Kelly and Roberts’ books: it’s a gateway.  Part magic realist, part War of the Worlds, part Martian Chronicles, and part something else, McDonald catches a glowing spark of Martian sand in a bottle for his debut novel.  (There is a sad lack of female British sf writers. But the one I initially wanted to include I learned already has a place: Nicola Griffith.)

Beyond the UK and US, I would look to Australia for inclusion of a Greg Egan title given the strength of his writing, its social voice, and influence on the field.  Permutation City (1994), arguably his most powerful statement in the two decades, it forms the perfect segue between cyberpunk and singularity texts; Egan continues the dialogue of virtual humanity in technically realistic and humane style.

And that’s it.  Yes, there are works by Gene Wolfe (The Book of the Long Sun), Kim Stanley Robinson (the Gold Coast or Mars trilogies), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), William Gibson (Neuromancer—copyright issues being the only explanation why it hasn’t yet been included), Ken Macleod (Fall Revolution quartet), Iain Banks (Excession) and many, many others which are likewise worthy of being nominated from the 80s and 90s for inclusion in Gollancz’s SF Collector’s and Masterwork series. But as those names and titles seem deeper entrenched in genre than those I drummed up, I’m willing to take the risk they will remain in print for some time longer, and therefore continue occupying a place in the field.  I may have only a thimbleful of regular readers, but I hope they, along with the handful that link in from Joachim and the others' sites, will take these recommendations with interest.

For those with a short attention span, my list boiled down to eight titles:

  1. Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly
  2. Good News from Outer Space by John Kessel
  3. Ribofunk by Paul Di Filippo
  4. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
  5. Foreigner trilogy by C.J. Cherryh
  6. Kiteworld by Keith Roberts
  7. Desolation Road by Ian McDonald
  8. Permutation City by Greg Egan
Once we start examining the new millennium, and the relative boom of speculative fiction, then things start to get interesting; it would be a real challenge to select titles from the past fifteen years worthy of canonization…


  1. A post-1980s list - what a great idea! :p
    Laughed at loud TWICE when reading your introduction: echoing my "Killer Bs" statement from my own review and mentioned that Benford's Timescape was "more than enough". ALSO, I considered Greg Egan for my list, too: Permutation City and lesser so Quarantine, both great. Think Like a Dinosaur has been on my to-buy list for so long! My favorite list thus far!

    1. If you happen to run across any other JPK collections, have a go, they're all good...

      The Killer Bs, well, yeah. I was trying to think of the best novel they produced. It must have been by Bear as he is the best of the three, but I can't think which Bear (of the few I've read). City at the End of Time? Darwin's Radio? I don't know.

      What's interesting is that starting before but really kicking into gear since the turn of the millennium is the assault of McMacs coming from the UK. Ken Macleod, Ian McDonald, Ian Macleod, Paul McAuley are some of the largest figures from Old Albion and, in my humble opinion, writing some of the best sf out there (with the exception of McAuley, perhaps).

  2. I really really need to get a copy on a Keith Richards novel -- Pavane (already picked up by Gollancz masterwork series) or this one. Which would you recommend?

    1. Depends how you like to read. If you want to jump in head first and read what many consider the best, go for Pavane. If you'd like to get a better context of Roberts' style before having a go at what may be the best, then have a try with Kiteworld, first. But who knows, maybe you'll like Kiteworld better. The good news is that either way you can't go wrong. ;)

  3. Ribofunk, C.J. Cherryh, and Kiteworld I very much enjoyed, and very much agree with. Ribofunk's absence is a surprise now that I stop and think about it, since it still shows up on best-of lists from time to time. Same for Greg Egan. The rest I'll have to add to my wishlist, since I have not yet read them,

    1. Ribofunk on a best-of list?!?! That's a shock to me. I would love to see such a list. Surely the other titles on it must also be intriguing!! :) (Di Filippo is one of those writers I will read/buy anything by sight unseen...)

    2. AbeBooks' 50 Essential Science Fiction Books, second line from the bottom -- there are some good things on there, and some expected titles, but kind of a weird list overall. I'll try to remember what other list it was on.

      I was bewildered to see it on the list, but that changed once I read it and realized what I'd been missing :)

    3. I remember that AbeBooks list. Myself, James Smythe and Jared Shurin did our own versions of it back in Jan 2013 - and

    4. Indeed a strange list! About halfway through I was about to declare it Top 50 Classic Science Fiction Books but then was smacked by a selection of titles, at turns mainstream and others off the map. I mean Scalzi and McMaster Bujold alongside Di Filippo and a graphic novel?!?! I once read a great breakdown of lists on your blog and noticed you laughing people who created a '100 best of' but which in fact should have been the '100 I have read". I know nothing about ABE,but this list, at least the second half feels more like 'read' than 'best of'.

    5. Ian, thanks for the link to your site. I've been there many times, but somehow missed that post. I'm not trying to kiss ass (what reason do I have? :), but your list is one of the best I've come across. It shows an awareness of genre that goes beyond mainstream - which is hard to find these days - not to mention it sets a goal for the majority of sf readers in terms of discovering new female writers. I know I feel embarrassed encountering names I need to find out for myself whether they are worth being on such a list. Well done.

  4. I second Desolation Road (my list is in the comments section over at SFRuminations). Fantastic novel. I like all of your picks that I've read -- except Permutation City, which (though I otherwise do love Greg Egan's work,) just wasn't quite my cup of tea. I've seen others cite it as his best, though, so I may be in the minority here.

    Way before I ever saw the term "Killer B's," I once joked that all the famous current American SF writers were named Greg, and the British ones were named Ian. Which, when I think about it now, says something about the state of science fiction around that time -- rather homogenous.

    1. The Killer Bs, yeah, hard sf with elements of space opera added to give the concoction color is a statement that sums up the majority of their writing. Regarding the Ians, however, I have to disagree. If we're talking about the same Ians (Macleod, Mcdonald, and Banks - Fleming?!?!), then I'm not sure there is a single statement which sums their works, not to mention Macleod gained prominence after the turn of the millennium. I have respect for Benford, Bear, and Brin (Bear most predominantly), but I consider McDonald, Macleod, and Banks superior in many ways, including prose, the uniqueness of their imaginings, and overall desire to distance themselves from the mainstream.

      Permutation City, yeah, I understand if it's not someone's favorite; it can be a cold text. I see you have Axiomatic on your list, which indeed captures the more social oriented fiction Egan was publishing toward the beginning of his career. Have you read any other Egan, like Distress of Quarantine?

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